The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, October 27, 2002

Loose autobiographical musings
Akshaya Kumar

Real Time: Stories and Reminiscence
by Amit Chaudhuri. Picador India. Pages 184. Rs. 395.

Real TimeIN broad generic terms, both novel and short story belong to the realm of fiction, but this does not necessarily mean that a successful novelist would be equally at ease with writing a short story. The larger canvas of the novel affords room for building up a sustained narrative. A short story, however, requires skills of a different kind. The narrative of a short story has to be taut and precise. Not many situations can be carried together in a short story; ideally, only one situation corresponds to a short story. It is very difficult to surmise whether a short-story writer graduates into a full-fledged fiction writer or the other way round, but what is certain is that the transition from one form to the other is never easy.

In the collection of short stories under review, Amit Chaudhuri struggles hard to get out of the mould of novel writing, which he has practised for long. No wonder most of the stories give the impression of being isolated chapters of his unfinished novel(s). The opening story, "Portrait of an Artist," is a miniature and localised version of James Joyce’s novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The writer, as protagonist, looks upon himself as a descendent of Stephen Dedalus and Calcutta as a "Dublinesque metropolis". "Prelude to an Autobiography: A Fragment" is another story which has the potential to be extended into a longer narrative. The writer does try to distance himself from his male Bengali subject position by way of creating a female protagonist, born to a Gujarati mother and a "de-racinated" Andhra Brahmin, in an overtly autobiographical story, but such strategies do not camouflage the identity of the author. "Confessions of a Sacrifice" does not stretch beyond two pages and a half. The story is an attempt at rarefied writing, as an exercise towards self-martyrdom. "E-minor" is another autobiographical tale recounted in run-on unrhymed sonnets, but except for rare flashes of irony and humour, the whole experiment falls flat. In lines such as – "the menu’s a delirious poem/ on which the names of Moghlai and Punjabi and Parsi dishes – chicken, korma, bhuna meat, dhansak – are placed in a proximity they’ll never be elsewhere" – Amit Chaudhuri does evince his characteristic playfulness.


Most of the stories are mere illustrations of Amit Chaudhuri’s critical position on the ongoing debate on the role and status of native language literature vis-ŕ-vis Indian English writings. "Beyond Translations," for instance, contains explicit statements on the issue: "Childhood was a time when I read nothing in Bengali, and my cousins nothing in English; yet none of us really encroached on the others’ territory, so rich was the store of children’s literature in both languages." Even "Portrait" deals with the relationship of an anglicised protagonist with his Bengali mastermoshai. "Prelude to an Autobiography" is full of meta-narrative statements. It ends on a note of self-reflexivity thus: "Really, our lives were glamorous and happy but too trivial. And it is there that I must begin, that is why all of us writers who have still not written a word are impatient to disturb the silence".

The stories that "really" stand out in terms of their narrative rigour, thematic depth and subtlety of treatment are "Real Time," "The Second Marriage," "White Lies" and "The Great Game." In the title story "Real Time" a businessman, Mr Mitra, while going to Talukdars’ house to condole the death of their married daughter, Mrs Anjali Poddar, who has committed suicide by jumping from the third floor, wonders "what view traditional theology took of this matter, and how the rites accommodated an event such as [suicide]". The death rites, Mr Mitra observes, "weren’t right without the mixture of convivial pleasure and grief". "The Second Marriage" brings out the staleness built in marrying for the second time: " . . . everyone was a degree less solemn than you might have expected . . .. There was an element of playacting, as they were not adhering to the plan of the ritual, but imitating what they’d done a few years ago." "The White Lies" exposes the mercantile approach of the corporate world towards arts and artists. "The Great Game," written before the match-fixing scandals, unmasks the emerging nexus of film stars, mafia dons and cricket stars through a vivid description of a one-day international at Sharjah.

True, that stories today are open-ended, but this open-endedness cannot be a subterfuge for rather loose and dispersed autobiographical musings. The notes towards the end serve the constituency of foreign readers — the prime target audience of these stories. After all, an Indian reader does not require authorial notes on Lakshman-Saroopnakha and Shiva-Parvati relationships. The stories based on these relationships – "An Infatuation" and "The Wedding," respectively – are prosaic and do not in any way present a "new" interpretive perspective.